Dissolving walls and synchronizing watches

Studio ClassroomMy campus planning course explores the future of campuses and prepares emerging professionals for these practice settings.

For the first half of the semester I experimented with making the room bigger – dissolving the walls that bound the traditional classroom. On March 3, 2015, for example, our session on the future of the campus included more than 40 students and guests in time zones from Western Europe to British Columbia. The synchronous discussion engaged students with the perspectives of academics and professional campus planners.

Most students were in the classroom/studio on the Georgia Tech campus. Others were elsewhere in Georgia or Minnesota. We usually had at least one guest speaker in the classroom and one via web conference. For seven sessions, we also had dozens of other guests as I experimented with the ability to scale up and export the course to a broader audience. [My observations on teaching this way are provided at the end of this post.]

Retaining Synchronicity – Before ubiquitous Wi-Fi, almost all higher education was place bound and inherently synchronous. As e-learning options have proliferated and evolved, the boundaries of campus, clock and calendar seem less relevant. These boundaries are becoming a matter of choice and tradition rather than required assumptions.

Most digital forms of higher education eliminate the need to share time as well as space. Such courses are neither spatially nor temporally synchronized. Splitting students in space and time allows much larger numbers of students. There is usually no aspect of synchronous, shared experience – a feature of education that has been an unstated assumption.

Some would say there is a loss of authenticity. As the sites and forms of education have become asynchronous, the frisson of now is lost. The effect of shared experience in education is not well documented, but I believe it can be seen in hybrid courses. These blend asynchronous (digital) and synchronous (face-to-face) components to produce better learning outcomes than purely asynchronous models.

Fourth and Fifth Walls – In theater the invisible separation between stage and audience is known as the fourth wall. In this semester’s class we didn’t worry about that because there was no fourth wall. Little distinction was made between students, speakers and other guests. But we all honored the fifth wall. We synchronized our watches for what was known as “showtime.”

Dissolving the fifth wall of shared experience leaves questions of authenticity. Can I dismiss my contribution to be in the moment, to be present in the exploration of ideas with my students? Is this vanity? Is it appropriate to count on one’s serendipitous ability to share an insight or profound comment that may have value in the life of my students? Alternatively, is there lasting value in my editorial judgment and blended conceptual structure; choosing what information to make available, in what form and sequence?

Becoming Asynchronous – I will be working on these questions and believe the answers describe the future of the campus. They lie in the value of shared experience, rather than knowledge acquisition. They involve real time face-to-face conversation. They include argument and judgment and result in insight and conclusion. And ambiguity.

I will be experimenting with the delivery of this course without synchronizing watches, without students and guests always sharing time and place. I expect the resulting format to be “synchronish,” becoming synchronous and place-bound only when necessary to produce measurably better educational value. Except for those moments, those transient episodes, walls will dissolve and there will be no watches.

Observations on teaching via web conferencing                                                Planning and Design of the University 2015

Positives –

  • Wider student access to a broad range of experts without the time and expense of transportation.
  • A richer ability to discuss issues and patterns rather than individual campus anecdotes.
  • Stretching the limits of synchronous interaction by offering the course in multiple time zones, with participants in four or five.
  • Locational flexibility for students.

Negatives –

  • Learning curve for students and scheduling/preparation for instructor and guests.
  • Web-conferencing is an immature technology, but improving rapidly.
  • Bandwidth for individual remote participants limits their ability to use video.
  • Even with the best connections, speakers’ videos are noticeably pixelated.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

3 thoughts on “Dissolving walls and synchronizing watches

  1. Michael,

    Your course has been truly instructive to me. I heard about what students perceive and understand from the readings you assigned. I also saw techniques I’m attempting to use and leverage in a very synchronous course I teach at Purdue. In addition, I’m learning how to develop a course more like your’s, synchronous and asynchronous for graduate and continuing-education students.

    This is the future of higher education – philosophical discourse on topics that are both relevant and timely. We must continue to pursue different delivery methods in higher education and to find relevant tools and techniques. The days of face-to-face education delivery are disappearing rapidly. They remain relevant but not ubiquitous. They are preferred but cannot be the sole method of education. The “sage on the stage” must transform to the “guide on the side” or “dean of the screen”. We can no longer teach as if there is one “way”; there are many. We must teach how to think.

    Congratulations on an excellent “experiment” in teaching architecture in a new format.

  2. Michael,
    I am interested in your comments and, of course, start to weight them relative to my own perspective as design faculty at Suffolk. Desk crits are still the operative mode of instruction; one sits down with a student, and looks at sketchy attempts at gaining a foothold in the direction of one’s intentions, I may posit a diagram in response, then they do, and so on. Some of this may actually be possible to do online – I imagine the technology would have to be quite good to capture such images if each of us was doodling relatively small on our individual desktops or on pressure sensitive input devices, but conceivable. Then I think of the looks on their faces – perhaps there were 20 times this Spring where I could tell there was an “a-ha” moment and probably triple that number of times that there were the tell-tale signs of being lost or confused and not wanting to let on the same. These were completely unspoken – everything depended on the facial and body languages that would take even greater technological zooming-in in order to be able to see it occurring and therefore respond appropriately. These are u-grads, very young and definitely a part of “De-vice” Generation but their sometimes-submersion into a screen world has not yet transitioned over to a communicable language that might be necessary in a distant learning world, ie, dependence on, say, vocalization that lets others know, eg, “I’m still following the ideas” or “sorry, lost the thread there for a moment”, or “please hold on a second, I’m still in awe of that last comment.”
    Now I may make too much of forging connections with individuals as part of earning trust now to pay dividends in the future. But I think that (at least in design) we need that trust in order to press on because we ask students to take leaps of faith frequently. Sometimes, this is in order to get them to want to undertake the preciousness of each mark they make on the page due to each life it will affect when they build one day.
    Consequently, from this limited perspective (and sorry I could not participate with you this last go around), I see quite a few growing pains in what I imagine will be a longer process of transition than many pundits are suggesting. So long, in fact, that I don’t wonder that new paradigms will have time to arise before the futures that many are predicting right now will ever come to pass as envisioned.
    So while they make catchy headlines and teaser blog headings, I see these futures as partial truths or maybe shadows of what will be – all the less accurate the more closely they are scrutinized. Cheers, Will

    • Will,
      You make an excellent argument to justify campuses – the places in which to share time and space with our students. As you point out, there are disciplines, design in this case, that are traditionally dependent on a rich mixture of verbal, non-verbal and graphic media to achieve learning outcomes. I agree this is particularly true for undergraduates and others relatively new to a discipline. The “a-ha” moments can be seen as proof of authentic learning (however difficult to quantify and recognize until after the fact). Donald Schon’s writing in “Educating the Reflective Practitioner” still rings true.

      The digital transformation of higher education will not result in everything moving to digital forms, anymore than streaming audio has eliminated live performance. However, just as in every other endeavor it requires a thoughtful reconsideration of traditional teaching methods as choices rather than required assumptions. I believe that pedagogies will continue to be place-based


      when necessary to produce measurably better educational value. In this transition, I expect the core of the design studio and similar experiences/settings to survive as transient episodes in a milieu that is largely digital and asynchronous.

      I do treasure the time I share with my students, but I will continue to challenge my assumptions about what components must/should be face-to-face and/or synchronous.

      Thanks for your comment, and please take a look at the links to the video session on the future of the university. You will find much support for your/our points of view. Thanks,

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